10 Superstitions and their Crazy Origins

Today there seems to be no logical reason why a four leaf clover symbolizes good luck while a broken mirror is the outcome of the opposite. But in earlier times, every superstition had a purposeful origin, a cultural background, and a practical explanation.
Superstitions arose in a straightforward manner. Primitive man, seeking answers for phenomena such as lightning, thunder, eclipses, birth, and death, and lacking knowledge of the laws of nature, developed a belief in unseen spirits. He observed that animals possessed a sixth sense to danger and imagined that spirits whispered secret warnings to them.
Though we now have scientific explanations for many once-mysterious phenomena, daily life still holds enough unpredictability that we turn, especially in times of misfortune, to superstitions to account for the unaccountable, to impose our own wishes on the change of circumstances in the world . So, here are the ancient origins of many of our most cherished irrational beliefs.

10. Broken Mirror

The Romans believed that a person’s health changed in cycles of seven years. Since mirrors reflect a person’s appearance (that is, health), a broken mirror meant seven years of ill health and misfortune. The superstition acquired a practical, economic application in fifteenth-century Italy. The first breakable sheet-glass mirrors with silver-coated backing were manufactured in Venice at that time. Being costly enough, they were handled with great care, and servants who cleaned the mirrors of the wealthy were emphatically warned that to break one of the new treasures invited seven years of a fate worse than death.

Such effective use of the superstition served to intensify the bad luck belief for generations of Europeans. By the time inexpensive mirrors were being manufactured in England and France in the mid-1600s, the broken-mirror superstition was widespread and rooted firmly in tradition.

9. Number Thirteen

Out of all superstitions, the one surrounding with number thirteen has affected the most people, and in almost countless ways. The French, for instance, never issue the house address thirteen. In Italy, the national lottery omits the number thirteen. National and international airlines skip the thirteenth row of seats on planes. In America, many skyscrapers, condominiums, co-ops, and apartment buildings label the floor that follows twelve as fourteen.

But how did this fear of the number thirteen, known as triskaidekaphobia, originate? The notion goes back at least to Norse mythology in the pre-Christian era. There was a banquet at Valhalla, to which twelve gods were invited. Loki, the spirit of evil, gate-crashed, raising the number present to thirteen. During the struggle to evict Loki, Balder, the favorite of the gods was killed.

From Scandinavia, the superstition spread south throughout Europe. By the dawn of the Christian era, it was well established in countries along the Mediterranean. The belief was reinforced, perhaps for all time, by history’s most famous meal: the Last Supper. Christ and his apostles numbered thirteen. Less than twenty-four hours after the meal, Christ was crucified.

8 . Friday the thirteenth

It is considered as the unluckiest of days, and many disastrous events are alleged to have occurred on this day. Tradition has it that on Friday the thirteenth, Eve tempted Adam with the apple; Noah’s ark set sail in the Great Flood; a confusion of tongues struck at the Tower of Babel; the Temple of Solomon demolished, and Christ died on the cross.
Friday is named for Frigga, the free-spirited goddess of love and fertility. When Norse and Germanic tribes converted to Christianity, Frigga was banished in shame to a mountaintop and labeled a witch. It was believed that every Friday, the spiteful goddess had a meeting with eleven other witches, plus the devil—a gathering of thirteen—and plotted ill turns of fate for the coming week. For many centuries in Scandinavia, Friday was known as “Witches’ Sabbath.

7 . Covering a yawn

Today, covering the mouth when yawning is considered an essential of good manners. But the original custom stemmed not a fear that in one giant exhalation the soul, and life itself, might depart the body. A hand to the lips held back the life force. Ancient man had observed that a newborn, struggling to survive, yawns shortly after birth. With infant mortality extraordinarily high, early physicians, at a loss to account for frequent deaths, blamed the yawn. The helpless baby simply could not cover its mouth with a protective hand. Roman physicians actually recommended that a mother be particularly vigilant during the early months of life and cover any of her newborn’s yawns.
Ancient man had also accurately observed that a yawn is contagious to witnesses. Thus, if a yawn was dangerous to the yawner, this danger could be “caught” by others, like the plague. The apology was for exposing friends to mortal danger. Modern science has explained the yawn as the body’s sudden need for a large infusion of oxygen, especially on awakening, when one is physically exhausted. But there still is no physiological accounting for the contagiousness of yawning. We know only that the sight of a person yawning goes to the visual center of the brain and from there is transmitted to the yawn center. Why such a particular pathway should exist is as mysterious to us today as was the yawn itself to ancient man.

6 . Evil Eye

A “dirty look,” a “withering glance,” “if looks could kill,” and “to stare with daggers” are a few common expressions that derive from one of the most universal of fears, the evil eye. It has been found in virtually all cultures. In ancient Rome, professional sorcerers with the evil eye were hired to bewitch a person’s enemies. All gypsies were accused of possessing the stare. And the phenomenon was so widespread and dreaded throughout India and the Near East. By the Middle Ages, Europeans were so fearful of falling under the influence of an evil glance that any person with a dazed, crazed, or canny look was liable to be burned at the stake.
How did such a belief originate independently among so many different peoples? One of the most commonly accepted theories involves the phenomenon of pupil reflection: If you look into a person’s eyes, your own reflection will appear in the dark of the pupil. Early man must have found it strange and frightening to glimpse his own image in miniature in the eyes of other tribesmen. He may have believed himself to be in personal danger, fearing that his likeness might lodge permanently in, and be stolen by, an evil eye.
The Egyptians had a solution to an evil stare—kohl, history’s first mascara. Worn by both men and women, it was applied in a circle or oval about the eyes. Why should mascara be an evil-eye antidote? No one today is certain. But darkly painted circles around the eyes absorb sunlight and consequently minimize reflected glare into the eye. The phenomenon is familiar to every football and baseball player who has smeared black grease under each eye before a game. The early Egyptians, spending considerable time in harsh desert sunlight, may have discovered this secret themselves and devised mascara not primarily for beautifying purposes, but for practical and superstitious ones.

5 . Walking Under a Ladder

Here is one superstition whose origin appears to be grounded in obvious and practical advice: walking under a ladder, after all, should be avoided since a workman’s plummeting tool could become a lethal weapon.
The true origin of the superstition, though, has nothing to do with practicality. A ladder leaning against a wall forms a triangle, long regarded by many societies as the most common expression of a sacred trinity of gods. The pyramid tombs of the pharaohs, for example, were based on triangular planes. In fact, for a commoner to pass through a triangulated arch was deemed as disrespectful to the its sanctity.
To the Egyptians, the ladder itself was a symbol of good luck. It was a ladder that rescued the sun god Osiris from imprisonment by the spirit of Darkness. The ladder was also a favorite pictorial sign to illustrate the ascent of gods. And ladders were placed in the tombs of Egyptian kings to help them climb heavenward.
Centuries later, followers of Jesus Christ usurped the ladder superstition, interpreting it in light of Christ’s death: Because a ladder had rested against the crucifix, it became a symbol of wickedness, betrayal, and death. Walking under a ladder courted misfortune. In England and France in the 1600s, criminals on their way to the gallows were compelled to walk under a ladder, while the executioner, called the Groom of the Ladder, walked around it.

4 . God Bless You

Every culture believes in a blessing following a sneeze. The custom goes back to a time when a sneeze was regarded as a sign of great personal danger.
For centuries, man believed that life’s essence, the soul, resided in the head and that a sneeze could accidentally expel the vital force. Every effort was made to hold back a sneeze, and an unsuppressed sneeze was greeted with immediate good luck chants.

Enlightenment arrived in the fourth century B.C. with the teachings of Aristotle and Hippocrates, the “father of medicine.” Both Greek scholars explained sneezing as the head’s reaction to a foreign or offensive substance that crept into the nostrils. They observed that sneezing, when associated with existing illness, often foretold death. For these evil sneezes, they recommended blessings such as “Long may you live!” “May you enjoy good health!” and “Jupiter preserve you!”
The Romans believed that by sneezing, by an otherwise healthy individual, was the body’s attempt to expel the sinister spirits of later illnesses. Thus, to withhold a sneeze was to incubate diseases, or worse, to invite death.

The Christian expression “God bless you” has a still different origin. It began in the sixth century, during the reign of Pope Gregory the Great. A fatal pandemic raged throughout Italy, one symptom being severe, chronic sneezing. So deadly was the plague that people died shortly after manifesting its symptoms; thus, sneezing became synonymous with death. Pope Gregory ordered the healthy to pray for the sick, and say “God bless you”. And if no well-wisher was around to invoke the blessing the sneezer was advised to exclaim aloud, “God help me!”

3 . Flip of a coin

The flipping of a coin is considered as a solution in times of indecisiveness and dispute, however, this wasn’t always the case. In ancient times, people believed that major life decisions should be made by the gods. And they devised forms of divination to persuade gods to answer important questions with a “yes” or “no.”

It was Julius Caesar, nine hundred years later, who instituted the heads/tails coin-flipping practice. Caesar’s own head appeared on one side of every Roman coin, and consequently it was a head—specifically that of Caesar—that in a coin flip determined the winner of a dispute or indicated an affirmative response from the gods.
Such was the reverence for Caesar that serious litigation, involving property, marriage, or criminal guilt, often was settled by the flip of a coin. Caesar’s head landing upright meant that the emperor, agreed with a particular decision and opposed the alternative.

2 . Spilling Salt

Salt was man’s first food seasoning, and it so dramatically altered his eating habits that it is not at all surprising that the action of spilling the precious ingredient became a bad omen.

Following an accidental spilling of salt, a superstitious nullifying gesture such as throwing a pinch of it over the left shoulder became a practice of the ancient Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and later the Greeks. For the Romans, salt was so highly prized as a seasoning for food and a medication for wounds that they coined expressions utilizing the word, which have become part of our language. The Roman writer Petronius, originated the term “not worth his salt” as criticism for Roman soldiers, who were given special allowances for salt rations, called salarium— “salt money” —the origin of our word “salary”.

The forbidding spilling of salt is captured in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Judas has spilled the table salt, foreshadowing the tragedy—Jesus’ betrayal—that was to follow. Historically, though, there is no evidence of salt having been spilled at the Last Supper. Leonardo incorporated the widespread superstition into his interpretation to further dramatize the scene. The classic painting contains two ill-boding omens: the spilling of salt, and thirteen guests at a table.

1. Black Cat

Fear of a black cat crossing one’s path is of relatively recent origin. Dread of cats, especially black cats, first arose in Europe in the Middle Ages, particularly in England. Alley cats were often fed by poor, lonely old ladies, and when witch hysteria struck Europe, and many of these homeless women were accused of practicing black magic, their cat companions (especially black ones) were deemed guilty of witchery by association.
In Lincolnshire in the 1560s, a father and his son were frightened one moonless night when a small creature darted across their path into a crawl space. Hurling stones into the opening, they saw an injured black cat scurry out and limp into the adjacent home of a woman suspected by the town of being a witch. Next day, the father and son encountered the woman on the street. Her face was bruised, her arm bandaged. And she now walked with a limp. From that day on in Lincolnshire, all black cats were suspected of being witches in night disguise. The belief in witches transforming themselves into black cats in order to roam streets unobserved became a central belief in America during the Salem witch hunts.